Implications For Autism

A disorder that is not yet officially defined or recognized by the medical community may have implications for treating some of the symptoms of autism.

Children who suffer from what many doctors and therapists are calling “sensory integration problems” may experience heightened sensations; perhaps causing them to “gag at the mere whiff of common smells or cry out when touched.” They may also be under-sensitive, “banging into things” and “duck walking through the day as if not entirely aware of their surroundings.” The condition usually leads to anxiety, tantrums, or problems in the classroom - symptoms that are also common in children with autism.

Experts on the disorder suggest that there is a reluctance to formally recognize it because doing so would introduce a whole new disability with a whole new set of implications for the special education system, which already costs state governments a hefty chuck of change.

Luckily, occupational therapists have had some success in treating the disorder. The first step, of course, is for parents to identify what causes the disruptive behaviors. Then, in one-hour daily sessions, therapists present stimuli gradually to help children build up a tolerance and help them better deal with their discomfort. For children who are under-sensitive, the therapy is done in reverse: “Get them lifting, pulling and working - until they gradually become more alert to the feel of the body and its surroundings.”

For children with autism, who often erupt in tantrum or shut down completely at the presence of certain stimuli, the same kind of occupational therapy may be beneficial. For example, Christopher, the main character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, hated to be touched. Undoubtedly, his parents went though the same kind of gradual process to develop their system of touching hands with Christopher as an alternative to hugging him. For teachers, the success of treatment plans for children with these sensory disorders has implications for working with autistic students: be patient, be gentle, and be gradual in your approach.

Contributed by: Mike Lederman

Carey, Benedict. (June 5, 2007) “The Disorder is Sensory; the Diagnosis, Elusive”

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Vintage Contemoraries, New York. 2003.